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More dairies go raw

Drinkers say unpasteurized milk contains good bacteria

By Darry Madden, Globe Correspondent  |  February 23, 2008

Article from The Boston Globe

Jill Ebbott, a holistic health counselor in Brookline, buys 8 gallons of unpasteurized milk a week for her household of three people, and she pours a splash in the bowls that her three dogs eat from. She says a year of drinking raw milk has cleared up her husband's allergies.

"He suffered tree pollen allergies for 21 years," Ebbott said. "In the spring, he was swollen and oozing and had to wear mittens to bed so he didn't scratch himself too much. After 13 months on raw milk, his gut was rebalanced to such a degree that he was healed."

The US Food and Drug Administration warns on its website that drinking unpasteurized milk is "like playing Russian roulette with your health," but Ebbott is part of a growing number of people who reject the long-held belief that pasteurized milk is better for you. People who prefer raw milk say that pasteurization - the process of heating milk to kill bacteria - destroys good bacteria along with the bad.

Massachusetts is among 28 states in which raw milk can be sold for human consumption, and in the past two years the number of dairies licensed to sell it here has gone from 12 to 23. Dairies are selling more raw milk than they were five years ago, according to the Northeast Organic Farming Association, which says it receives calls weekly from consumers trying to find it.

Neither the association nor the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture keep records of how many gallons are produced, but farms say they are producing more raw milk than ever.

Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown, for example, is primarily a cheese-making operation, but it began selling unpasteurized milk a year ago because customers kept asking for it.

Anecdotal evidence such as Ebbott's is common among people who drink raw milk. But science is beginning to weigh in, too. Researchers at the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Basel in Switzerland followed nearly 15,000 children ages 5 to 15 in Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, and Germany from 2001 to 2004. The study, sponsored by the European Union and published in 2007, found that children who drank raw milk had a lower incidence of asthma and allergies.

Spokesman Michael Herndon said the FDA advises against the consumption of raw milk because it is a welcoming host to pathogens such as listeria and salmonella. On its website, the FDA says there is no truth to the assertions that raw milk can cure allergies. The agency says children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are particularly susceptible to the food-borne illnesses that can result from drinking unpasteurized milk.

Raw milk supporters see things differently. They say that although pasteurization kills dangerous bacteria and pathogens such as E. coli and listeria, it also destroys beneficial bacteria, enzymes, and raw fats that boost the immune system and aid digestion. Pasteurization usually goes hand in hand with homogenization, the process that breaks the fat globules in milk into smaller particles. The dairy industry homogenizes milk to prevent the cream from rising and to create a more uniform product, but raw milk advocates say that further corrupts the nutritional value of milk.

"Bottom line is that we're bacteria sapiens," said Mark McAfee, chief executive of Organic Pastures in Fresno, Calif., the nation's largest raw milk dairy. "We have to have good bacteria in our bodies."

Raw milk has been hotly debated in California recently; the state passed a bill late last year effectively banning the sale of raw milk, but is poised to repeal the law.

McAfee, whose $5 million annual business has grown about 25 percent a year, said Organic Pastures boasts an unblemished safety record over its seven years.

Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, said the growing interest in unpasteurized milk nationally is part of a larger cultural shift toward using and eating food that hasn't been processed.

"It's part of the real food movement that says, 'If it's whole and unprocessed, it's better for me,' " said Nestle, author of several books, including "What to Eat," a guide to good nutrition. "Personally, I prefer my milk pasteurized. But on the other hand, I don't see why raw milk can't be produced according to food safety standards and tested for pathogens and be safe. The whole thing seems to be blown out of proportion."

Raw milk is strictly regulated in most of the 28 states in which it can be sold for human consumption. In Massachusetts, a dairy must be licensed by the state and get approval from the local board of health. Raw milk can be sold in stores in eight states, including Connecticut and Maine, but in Massachusetts in can be sold only at the dairy.

To deal with this rule, consumers have begun forming buying clubs.

Just Dairy, a club on the North Shore, started up in 2003 with just a few families, but now buys 250 gallons of milk a week from three farms in Central Massachusetts and delivers them to 143 families. Members pay a $10 weekly membership fee (to cover administrative costs and gas) and $6 to $8 per gallon of milk, the same price that the club pays the farmer. (A gallon of pasteurized milk costs about $3 to $4 at most supermarkets.)

Beyond health reasons, people who drink raw milk also favor its richer, creamier taste.

Cyndy Gray, who runs Just Dairy, said so many people are buying raw milk that she needs a bigger delivery truck to keep up with the club's growth. "I feel like I'm a farmer," said Gray, a former Coast Guard communications officer. "I'm coming at this with the same dedication that they do."

But there have been problems with raw milk. Last year the state closed nine licensed raw milk dairies for periods ranging from three days to four months for high bacteria counts in the milk, and temporarily shuttered another dairy for unsanitary conditions.

"I do believe it's a safe product," said Scott Soares, the assistant agricultural commissioner. "I don't think problems are an indication of more contamination but more access to raw products."

Robinson Farm in Hardwick, the largest provider of raw milk to Just Dairy, was a conventional dairy, feeding its cows grain and selling milk to a bulk processor to be pasteurized, until 2005. But then the farm's owners changed course. The farm shrank its herd from 100 to 40 cows, put all of them out to pasture, and began the transition to organic production of raw milk. (Raw milk farms are not required to grass-feed their cows, but many consider it important for quality and safety.)

Agri-Mark, a bulk milk processor with plants around New England, handles milk from 60 percent of Massachusetts' dairy farms. The company's position is that all milk should be pasteurized, said its spokesman, Douglas DiMento. "It can be very high quality, but there are organisms you can't see," he said.

But even at Agri-Mark, not everyone agrees.

Dave Patteson, a former farmer who regularly drank unpasteurized milk from his cows and is now the manager of Agri-Mark's laboratory, said it is more important to consider the source of the milk rather than whether it has been pasteurized.

"I'm a huge advocate of just knowing where your food comes from," he said.

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